Made in Africa: 9 popular local tonics and medicines that Africans swear by

Oils, balms and tonics - traditional common remedies that have stood the test of time

THE current Ebola outbreak in West Africa that has killed over 4,000 has spawned its fair share of fake treatments; from heavily salted water to strange roots.

While the results have been tragic, there is also a historical reason for it: For thousands of years natural products have played a very important role in health care and prevention of diseases in Africa, as in the rest of the world. The belief that “Mother Nature” will always have a cure is therefore wired in our societies. Some of these natural products heal, some give temporary relief, others psychological comfort—and some are worthless.

Global pharmaceutical companies know the same thing, and continue to use the active ingredients of plants to create medicine that is found all over the world. Most Africans meanwhile continue to stand by their more traditional remedies that have worked for generations.  Some of these medicines have acquired a cult status.

Several of these remedies have been taken a step further - they are being mass-produced by local pharmaceuticals. These concoctions are often seen in simple packaging, with classic but often glaring branding - a representation of what they really contain - plenty of natural plant matter, which users can relate to. In fact, since about 80% of Africa’s population relies on traditional medicine for their basic health needs, because it is the only affordable healthcare option, it was important to keep costs down and ensure that the medication that is bought is well known from decades of experience and story-telling. Local pharmaceuticals have picked up on this, keeping their products recognisable to the market and changing very little about them. These products and remedies are so ingrained in society that they easily stand their own against imported internationally recognised brands, often will little or no marketing. 

Here are nine of the most common medicines and remedies that Africans swear by: 

Lung Tonic, Kenya

Open a bottle of this in a small room and its pungent aroma makes it clear that whatever ails you “Good Morning Lung Tonic” will destroy it. Made by the Boots Company in Nairobi, this greyish-brown liquid is a popular and cheap treatment for a variety of illnesses - coughs, colds, bronchitis to name a few. It has been around for ages.

Argan oil, Morocco

In the world of skin care, few natural products get as much attention as argan oil. Un-roasted argan oil is traditionally used in Morocco as a treatment for skin diseases and as a cosmetic oil for skin and hair. Today, it has become so popular across the globe that it is often called “liquid gold” and, since it is almost exclusively found in Morocco, the Moroccan government plans to triple annual production to 2,500 - 4,000 tonnes by 2020. According to researcher Mintel, 588 argan oil hair products were debuted in 2012, up from 29 in 2008. Argan oil is a plant oil produced from the kernels of the argan tree, endemic to Morocco. The oil is high in vitamin E, essential fatty acids and antioxidants, and experts believe it can help with many skin conditions, from dry skin and wrinkles to psoriasis, eczema and acne. 

Kabuuti Herbal Cough Syrup, Uganda

Kabuuti (the name means heavy trench coat) cough syrup is as popular as sliced bread in Uganda among devotees, and is known as the “coughs worst enemy”. This syrup, produced by Nsimye Herbal Medicine Limited, Kampala, is used for relief from coughs, measles, tonsillitis and flu.  It is touted as effective relief from cough, measles, whopping cough, tonsillitis & flu.

Lengana Umhlonyane, South Africa

For centuries Lengana Umhlonyane, commonly known as “worm wood”, has been the “go to” for many South African households in the treatment of a huge variety of ailments. This includes coughs, flu, pain, fever and gastrointestinal disorders. It is also used to help relieve headaches, sinusitis and nasal congestion. Traditionally the plant’s leaves are used as a tea. However, as urbanisation occurs people are now finding it more difficult to access lengana plants. Fortunately companies like “BioAfrica” have taken the opportunity to package and sell forms of legana leaves all over the country, sensing an opportunity to help Southern Africans access the herb they’d been using for centuries in hygienic and convenient packaging.

Ravintsara, Madagascar 

Held in very high regard in Madagascar, Ravintsara is made from the leaves of the Cinnamomum camphora plant. It has a spicy, camphorous, warm scent, similar to eucalyptus but softer. It is commonly found in an oil form and is referred to as “the oil that heals” because it is used to boost the immune system and combats many different conditions - mostly it is used in inhalation for lung and throat infections as well as chronic sinus inflammation and bronchitis inflammation.  

Kyapa (Chapa) Mbalasi, Uganda

One of Uganda’s oldest and best inventions - nearly 100 years on the market - Kyapa or Chapa Mbalasi is an ointment that is rubbed on a person’s forehead, chest back, neck to give relief from colds and headaches. 

Touloucouna oil, Senegal

Used for a long time in traditional pharmacopoeia, Touloucouna oil is extracted from the seeds of this beautiful tree which grows in abundance on the western coast of tropical Africa. It is used as an anti-inflammatory, anti-parasitic and analgesic (against rheumatism, muscle pain) oil. It is taken as a tonic but is often used as a massage oil to treat skin diseases (skin lesions, psoriasis). It is also effective against cellulitis.

SEEM lozenges, Egypt

Cough drops or lozenges have existed for centuries. In fact, the first cough drops were developed by the Egyptians 3,000 years ago and were made of honey, herbs, spices and fruits. It is therefore fitting that in Egypt one of the most popular lozenges are homemade. SEEM, produced by Arkedia International, have a range of more than seven flavoured  lozenges to choose from to help treat sore throats. 

Salimia Liniment and Cream, Kenya 

Salimia presents itself both as a liniment and a cream. This rub provides relief for stiffed shoulders, Cervical spondylosis, Lower back pain, joint pains and minor sprains.

•Every African country has its local products which have treated grandparents, parents, and their children, so let us know of your local tonics that we have missed so we can do a complete list! Contact: editorial(at)mgafrica.com/ twitter - @samooner


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